Nine UMass Amherst Faculty Members Receive NSF CAREER Awards in 2022-23 Academic Year
Over the course of the 2022–2023 academic year, nine faculty members across the UMass Amherst campus have been named the recipients of National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER awards.
The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is a foundation-wide activity that offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of early career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.
Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences
Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS) professors Cindy Xiong Bearfield and Hung Le have been awarded CAREER grants from the National Science Foundation for their work on measuring trust in human-data interactions and the theory of topological graphs.
Bearfield, whose award totals $631,846, is working to develop a formalized model to measure trust in human-data interaction and enhance critical thinking between humans and data in visual data communications.
Data visualizations leverage the strength of our visual perceptual system to process information to help us communicate information more efficiently. However, many decisions go into designing a visualization, from choosing the visual styles of a chart to what background information to provide. Effective design decisions can lead to powerful and intuitive processing by a visualization reader, but poor choices can leave the key patterns misunderstood, stymie critical thinking with data and leave the visualization reader vulnerable to biases and misinformation.
For Bearfield, this raises important questions about how we can design visualizations to encourage critical thinking and afford trust.
“The visualization community does not yet have a systematic understanding of factors that impact trust in visualization design nor a formalized model of how trust is measured and established between humans and data,” explains Bearfield. “Ideally, we want human readers to engage in calibrated trust when interacting with data visualizations, which involves critically evaluating the information, rather than unconditionally dismissing or accepting it. At the same time, we want to support visualization creators to design visualizations that elicit calibrated trust.”
Le will use his award of award of $655,466 to advance the theoretical understanding of topological graphs, which appear in many practical applications, including logistics and planning, very large-scale integration design, image processing, and robot navigation.
Topological graphs have what Le calls “nice structures” with few or no edge crossings, where links between vertices in the graph are forced to intersect. According to Le, research on the structures of topological graphs has produced powerful algorithmic techniques over the past two decades, but current techniques are reaching their limits. His goal is to develop a new class of techniques inspired by geometry counterparts that will break through the limits of the existing ones. These geometrical techniques, according to Le, may provide breakthroughs for algorithms attempting to solve problems that are currently considered to be among the most difficult—such as the k-center problem, used to optimize the placement of network nodes or facilities, or the vehicle routing problem used in ride-sharing and logistic applications.
“Topology is very flexible, while geometry is very rigid,” explains Le. “This makes topology a great tool for modeling graphs, but its flexibility comes with a cost—it is very difficult for people to understand topology and solve problems in topological graphs. On the other hand, while people have been studying geometry for millennia—and are really good at understanding and solving geometric problems—geometry lacks the flexibility to model the graphs that are needed for real-world applications.”
College of Natural Sciences
The College of Natural Science (CNS) has been awarded three CAREER grants during this cycle, bringing the total number to 63. This year’s recipients include James Walsh (chemistry), Katherine Whitaker (astronomy) and Shuang Zhou (physics).
Walsh received $696,992 to study high-pressure chemistry, an area that has so far received far less attention than high-temperature chemistry.
High-pressure chemistry has already led to the discovery of many exciting new materials with properties such as lossless electrical conductivity, exceptional hardness and exotic forms of magnetism. One major obstacle in the field is that the exceedingly small scales required to perform high-pressure reactions make it difficult for chemists to fine tune their recipes for preparing materials as easily as they can for reactions under normal pressure. This in turn makes it much more difficult to investigate and tune the new high-pressure materials being discovered.
Walsh will use his award to develop a completely new approach to high-pressure synthesis that uses cutting-edge microfabrication methods to precisely tune elemental ratios to a much higher precision than is possible with current methods.
“By squeezing elements under enormous pressures and temperatures comparable to the centers of planets, we can stabilize completely new crystal structures never seen before,” says Walsh. “These new arrangements of atoms lead to new properties, and we get to be the first to study them.”
This project supports the expert training of graduate students as they develop these next-generation methods, greatly strengthening our nation’s future scientific workforce. The award also enables the development of new educational kits that provide high school and undergraduate students with hands-on access to high-pressure science, promoting their exposure to forefront scientific disciplines.
Astronomy’s Whitaker has received $799,007 to better understand how early galaxies “stalled” when the universe was forming.
Studies show that early galaxies were surrounded by large gas reservoirs that were sustained by the cosmic web, which should have allowed for a steady formation of new stars. However, only three billion years after the Big Bang, half of these massive galaxies stopped forming new stars. Whitaker’s team will use data from the Large Millimeter Telescope and Subaru Telescope to map the distribution of galaxies and their molecular gas throughout most of the history of the universe. They will also establish a program at the UMass Amherst to provide research opportunities for underrepresented groups in STEM fields.
“What excites me most about this project is the opportunity this funding presents to support historically excluded groups in performing cutting edge astrophysics research,” says Whitaker. “Our students will confront theory with observations to help unravel the mystery of why the most massive galaxies formed and quenched remarkably early.” The group will conduct annual workshops and externships for girls from low-income school districts, giving them hands-on experience with real data. This will help to promote inclusion and equity for all aspiring astronomers.
In the course of her research, Whitaker and her team will address fundamental questions about massive galaxy evolution. By mapping degree-scale statistical populations of massive galaxies, the teamwill connect their environments from the Subaru Telescope/Prime Focus Spectrograph to their cold gas, as traced by dust using the TolTEC instrument on the Large Millimeter Telescope. By using the most sophisticated cosmological simulations to date that include the physics of dust formation, growth and destruction, the team will further perform an apples-to-apples analysis of mock galaxies to understand systematics and calibrate observations. Through linking star formation and cold gas across diverse galaxy habitats, the team will develop a physical model explaining the key processes responsible for the assembly of early massive galaxies through to the present day.
Zhou, (physics), was awarded $708,245 to investigate the basic structure of the living world, which is chiral: we have left and right hands, shells of beetles are layers of fibers with a rotating orientation, and DNA forms helices. Basic motions in the living word are also chiral: bacteria swing their flagella like a boat propeller, and the microtubules in cells are rotating while sliding apart. A fundamental question to ask is how chiral activity in a chiral world produces a large range of interesting structures, dynamics, and mechanics of the biological world.
“My team and I are going to construct a model system called ‘chiral living liquid crystals’ to understand how patterns emerge, and what novel mechanical properties one can engineer with this new material,” says Zhou.
The system is composed of biocompatible liquid crystals and bacteria swimmers that self-propel through helical motion, allowing a wide range of experiments to be done in a controlled way. The project aims to reveal the underlying mechanisms of a hierarchy of dynamics, ranging from how individual bacteria motion is affected by chiral environments, to how chiral systems respond to chiral stresses. The research aspects of the project are accompanied by an extensive scope of educational and outreach activities, including educating schoolteachers with optics experiments, helping them setting up new STEM demos for K-12 students, improving undergraduate students’ problem-solving skills with course-based research experiences, preparing advanced undergraduates for summer research with mini-courses and mentoring graduate students from a diverse background and underrepresented groups.
College of Engineering
The College of Engineering has been awarded four CAREER grants this year, bringing the total number to 20 awards within the last five academic years. This year’s awardees include Fatima Anwar, Wen Chen, Yeonsik Noh and Siyuan Rao.
Anwar was awarded $650,639 to develop a reliable way of measuring time, which has always been critical for the security of national and industrial infrastructure, such as smart grids and industrial control systems.
“With the emergence of human-in-the-loop systems, such as virtual reality, autonomous vehicles, mobile health and smart financial systems, the integrity of timing is more important than ever for user security and safety,” says Anwar.
“My proposed work is the first effort to provide an end-to-end, secure time architecture for edge systems with diverse clocks, for timestamping and time transfer. This project is also the first to study active and passive sensing mechanisms for secure time coordination.”
Anwar adds that her NSF research “also investigates challenges to secure time-sensitive networking in 5G networks, distinguished by support for emerging time-critical applications at large scales. This project will advance the state-of-the-art in secure timing with new clock sources, time transfer channels, and network protocols.”
Anwar concludes that her secure timing architecture will “create a foundation for designing safe, secure, and efficient systems.”
Chen received $549,950 for a project titled “Understanding Microstructure Evolution and Deformation Mechanism of Strong Yet Ductile Nanolamellar High-Entropy Alloys Produced by Additive Manufacturing.”
Additive manufacturing, also called 3D printing, is a new paradigm for producing components with a broad range of technological applications, including the automotive, aerospace, and biomedical industries. However, as Chen observes, “high-strength nanostructured metals, produced by 3D printing, often suffer from limited ductility, which is an ability to be stretched without breaking.”
According to Chen, “High-entropy alloys are a new class of materials that contain high concentrations of five or more different elements in near equal atomic proportions…This award supports fundamental investigations into additive manufacturing of nanostructured, high-entropy alloys towards strength-ductility synergy beyond current benchmarks. The knowledge being established in this project will guide the development of strong yet tough metal alloys for various applications such as advanced energy systems, transportation, and defense.”
Noh, who holds a joint appointment with Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Elaine Marieb College of Nursing, has received $550,000 to study aquatic therapy.
Aquatic therapy is widely used to help stroke patients during rehabilitation, since water allows patients to perform rehabilitation exercise with less pain. However, Noh explains, the current research has not focused sufficiently on how to help therapists adjust and personalize their therapeutic approaches to fit the individual needs of each patient. This is partly because there is no technology available that allows therapists to accurately measure and analyze their patients’ movements while exercising in water, leaving therapists heavily reliant on their observations, intuitions, and experiences.
Noh’s long-term goal with this CAREER Award is to design and develop an assist-tool that therapists can use to investigate physiological and motor improvements during aquatic therapy. This tool will take the form of an ergonomic wearable system designed for the water environment, utilizing hydrophobic bio-signal sensors, and will allow for the continuous monitoring of patient performance during aquatic therapy. This will in turn yield valuable insights into how exercises are impacting the patient and will help therapists make real-time adjustments to optimize the therapy.
“This project aims to understand how the human body works underwater and how it responds to different movements and exercises in aquatic therapy. This knowledge will be used to develop more personalized and effective aquatic rehabilitation programs, particularly for people with neurological disorders and diseases. This research has the potential to lead to new and improved ways of treating these conditions.”
Noh also intends to integrate his interdisciplinary research framework for personalized healthcare and rehabilitation into the educational goals he pursues at UMass. These goals include broadening the participation of students in healthcare engineering, fostering an interdisciplinary research group and inclusive training, and multidisciplinary course development.
Ultimately, Noh says, he hopes that this project “will yield a paradigm shift in aquatic therapy.”
Rao’s CAREER research, awarded $549,740, aims to engineer platform methodologies to investigate the nervous system and ultimately develop therapeutics for nervous system dysfunction.
Rao explains that spinal cord injury is one of the leading causes of paralysis in the U.S., affecting more than 1.4-million people. Most of the current neurotechnology for the spinal cord system relies on directly injecting electricity into the tissues.
“However,” as Rao explains, “current existing electrical stimulation approaches are inadequate to find out which type of cells contributes to injury recovery because electricity affects all the neurons in certain areas without selection. Using the knowledge of materials engineering and neuroscience, [I hypothesize] that the development of a new multifunctional soft neural probe technology can advance a holistic understanding of neural pathophysiology in spinal cord injury.”
Rao plans to promote the knowledge of spinal cord injury disability by integrating her research program with educational components through various collaborations, including the UMass Amherst Disability Service Office and President’s Office Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Accessibility Team.